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Staying Power

The Soft Boys


The Soft Boys’ crunchy 1980 psychedelic masterwork, Underwater Moonlight, has been regularly cited by critical types as the Rosetta stone needed to understand modern, guitar-based alternative rock in all of its myriad manifestations. You may like R.E.M., the Replacements, Dream Syndicate, the Bangles and the Three O’Clock, sure (the critics will tell you) . . . but you can’t really appreciate them all properly unless you’ve been schooled at the church of the Soft Boys first.

Of course, that sort of absolutist critical position was built upon the fact that Underwater Moonlight was also the last Soft Boys record, so it was easy to attribute divine stature to the final studio release of a group nobody ever expected to play—much less record—together again. But, oops and surprise surprise surprise, this year finds Robyn Hitchcock, Kimberly Rew, Matthew Seligman and Morris Windsor not only playing together again, but releasing their first slice of new material in 22 years. So the big question now is: Does Nextdoorland enhance or diminish the Soft Boys legend? And this critic’s answer would be: neither. Nextdoorland, instead, sustains the legend, by allowing a great band to play some solid songs together, nicely reminding us all why we liked them so much in the first place.

While Hitchcock and Windsor have never really stopped playing together (the pair, along with Andy Metcalfe—himself an earlier member of the Soft Boys—spent much of the ’80s and ’90s together as the Egyptians), their work benefits greatly from the return of guitarist Rew (who brings out the best in Hitchcock’s own guitar work) and bassist Seligman (a more muscular player than Metcalfe, creating a stronger rhythm section than the Egyptians ever enjoyed). Hitchcock’s songs are rich and strong this outing, and his distinctive reedy voice benefits from the tight harmonies his Soft brothers provide, creating a fuller, more accessible sound than his recent solo work has borne—a sound that could have been made by any number of contemporary groups, actually, which is probably the ultimate statement of just how influential the Soft Boys really have been on modern pop-rock music.

—J. Eric Smith

The Figgs

Slow Charm

The Figgs’ fifth full-length release in eight years (plus a handful of EPs) is their best yet—which is just as it should be. This in no way diminishes the potency, resonance and durability of Slow Charm’s predecessors. The best bands get better; anything less than that, and you’ve got either brand names meeting middling expectations or middling bands getting to the top of their stepladders. Pete Donnelly and Mike Gent continue to grow as writers, with the band as a whole confidently adding soulful rhythms and slow grooves to their well-rounded identity. “The Trench” rings like an anthem, but with no cloying anthemic aftertaste. Gent’s singing on “Soon” is masterful and sly, as he bends the note of the title word, underscoring its definition.

And there can be no great band without a great drummer. Slack off in any other position and maybe you can squeak by, but if you’re shortchanged at the trapset, it’s a lost cause. Here’s a fact: You can listen to this album from beginning to the end as a Pete Hayes album and find myriad delights, from the hopped up ska of “Static” to the push-and-pull simplicity on the closing ballad “Are You Still Mine?”

—David Greenberger

Mindless Self Indulgence

Alienating Our Audience
(Uppity Cracker)

As Mindless Self Indulgence have but one full-length album (Frankenstein Girls Will Seem Strangely Sexy) under their collective belts, fishnets and garters, one might think that it’s a bit premature for the New York electropunk audioterrorists to be issuing their first live collection. But one would be wrong (as one so often is), seeing as there’s nary a single song from Frankenstein Girls on the new Alienating Our Audience, and seeing as how MSI have probably played live before more and larger crowds than any other unsigned band in America—having been handpicked to open for the likes of Korn, System of a Down, Cypress Hill, Staind and Rammstein. They’ve earned a live record, goddammit, and they deliver a good one with Alienating Our Audience, which offers six previously unreleased songs, plus such crowd-pleasing essentials as “Tornado,” “Molly” and “Diabolical” (from the hard-to-find Tight EP), and “Panty Shot” (from the impossible-to-find “Bring the Pain” cassette single). Sound is good throughout, with MSI’s hyperspeed riffs and histrionic rants making the transition from studio to stage very, very well—largely due to the nail-biting intensity of singer Little Jimmy Urine’s preprogrammed beats and bombs. Urine’s vocals, too, are strong (which may surprise those of you who think that, no way, he can’t really sing like that without studio effects, can he?—Yes, he can), as are the live musical meltdowns bashed out by drummer Kitty, bassist LynZ and guitarist Steve, Righ? Try as they might, Mindless Self Indulgence appear to be too good to alienate their own audience—and here’s betting, based on the evidence presented on this disc, that they might have even stolen some other acts’ audiences from them as well.


Jim Hall

Downbeat Critics’ Choice

Jazz guitarist Jim Hall first came to widespread attention in Jimmy Giuffre’s drummerless trio in the ’50s. That setting was perfect for all concerned, showing both Hall’s subtle melodicism as well as the reed player’s good sense in assembling his small combo. Hall’s subsequent work found him flourishing in duo and trio settings, utilizing a sensibility on his instrument that combined Django Reinhardt’s fluidity with the pristine atmosphere of chamber music.

This set is culled from five releases recorded between 1995 and 2001. Extracts from Downbeat reviews by three different writers appear in the booklet. With Hall’s focus on melody already well recognized and celebrated, these dozen tracks show his variety of approaches to interplay, from duos to large ensembles. Hall is a regal soloist as well as a supportive player, giving rhythmic structure to even the quietest of moments. While not by any means a career overview, this disc does offer a wonderful entry point to Jim Hall’s long career.


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